The Autonomy of Mary Tudor, Queen of France


Mary Tudor, who was most likely born sometime in March of 1496, was approximately 18 years old when she married the 52-year-old King Louis XII of France on 9 October 1514. She was not only young enough to be the groom’s granddaughter, she was acclaimed as one of the most beautiful women in Europe.

Mary_Tudor,_Princess_of_England,_Queen_of_France_and_Duchess_of_Suffolk (2)

King Louis was delighted with the match. Mary was … less so.

The bride, even if she had been sanguine about marrying a gouty old man, was in love with someone else — Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Her heart must have been breaking as she said her vows, and then again as she laid down in the marital bed to satisfy the French king’s lusts.

mary tudor queen of france 2

Sadly, her heart and her wishes didn’t matter. As King Henry VIII’s sister, she was an embodiment of state. Mary was a living, breathing contract between nations. Her body was not her own. Her will was not her own. She existed to serve as a manifestation of a political negotiation and the vessel to carry the royal bloodline of the monarch who offered the most to secure her and her dowry.

Nevertheless, Mary was too proud to show any weakness unbecoming to a queen. No one, not even the closest observer, had an inkling of how unhappy she must have been.

According to Antonio Triulzi, Bishop of Asti, she looked every inch a queen upon entering France for her marriage. On the 8th, she rode into Abbeville “under a white canopy, above and around which were the roses, supported by two porcupines. She was alone beneath it, and Monseigneur [d’Angoulême] on her left hand, but outside. She rode a white palfrey, with rich trappings, and was herself clad in very handsome stiff brocade.” He did notice that she was ‘a little pale’, but he put that down to seasickness, not heartsickness.

The next morning, dressed in French finery, Mary Tudor wed the king at the Hôtel de la Gruthuse with such courage and sang froid that not even he could tell she was yearning for another man. Louis wrote to Henry VIII, declaring that “the content which I have in the Queen, my wife, your good sister, who has so conducted herself towards me, and continues so to do daily, that I know not how I can sufficiently praise and express my delight in her.” Mary clearly knew the role she was expected to play and was determined to do it with honor.

Mary Tudor weds Louis XII

A portion of her determination came from the bargin she had struck with her brother to chose her second husband in exchange for docilely becoming King Louis’s wife, although Henry didn’t seem understand how earnest she was about it. Mary had told (or warned) Henry in a letter that, “if I shulde fortune to survive the said late king I mygt with your good wil marye my self at my libertie withoute your displeasor.” Mary probably knew Henry didn’t intend to really let her chose her own husband, but she made sure he could never say she hadn’t been honest about her plans.

King Louis, to be fair, did everything he could to woo his beautiful young wife, with whom he was soon infatuated. Witnesses reported that the king liked to have Mary, “always at his side.” He likewise assured his new brother-in-law that, “More and more I love, honour and hold her dear; therefore you may be certain that she is, and ever will continue to be, treated in such a manner as shall content her, and you likewise.” And he did treat her well. He gave her very expensive jewelry to mark her worth to him, and ordered lavish entertainments to amuse her. When the King died just a few months after the wedding, on 1 January 1515, people speculated he had worn himself out trying to please Mary in bed as well. This is almost certainly untrue; he probably died of acute gout.

It is in widowhood that Mary would show she was a Tudor to the marrow of her bones and would prove to be every bit the strong-willed, strong-minded, ardent and determined lover as any of her noble ancestors or nearest kin.

Mary was isolated immediately after her husband’s death for more than a month to ascertain whether or not she was pregnant. During that time, various plots and intrigues were hatched to try to take her autonomy away from her once more. Francis I, already acting as king, was thinking about using her to reward and/or bribe either Antoine, Duke of Loraine or Charles III, Duke of Savoy. Additionally, the Duke of Norfolk sent two friars to tell Mary (whose affection for Brandon was an open secret in Henry’s court) that Henry VIII and his council would never allow her to marry the Duke of Suffolk and she better not even want to marry him because Brandon was totally into witchcraft. (Norfolk didn’t want Suffolk getting any more power than he already had.) Scuttlebutt had it that Henry was already trying to negotiate a marriage between Mary and Prince Charles, heir of the Holy Roman Emperor and the current ruler of Burgundy and the Low Countries. There was also worry that Francis, a skirt-chaser like no other, would seduce his former mother-in-law.

To get Mary out of perverted French clutches, Henry sent Charles Brandon to bring her home … along with her dowry if possible. While this looks like a farmer sending a fox to get the hen for him in hindsight, it really wasn’t that stupid a move on Henry’s part. First, he trusted Brandon, who had been his best friend since the king had been potty trained. Secondly, it was treason to wed Mary without Henry’s consent and he assumed his friend would be deterred by the idea of being hanged, drawn, and quartered for meeting Mary at the altar. Finally, Brandon was already pre-contracted to wed his 10 year old ward, Elizabeth Grey, Viscountess Lisle. Still, Henry reminded Brandon not to do anything that would cost him his head, and shooed him on his way to rescue Mary, Dowager Queen of France.

Mary Tudor had other plans.

It took her several days of seductive cooing and emotional blackmail, but Mary got her man. She and Brandon plighted their troth before a handful of witnesses in the later half of February, and consummated the union to make it binding.


Henry was ripshit when he found out. It tends to get downplayed, because the Brandons got away with their defiance, but Henry was not one to turn the other cheek when his royal authority was impugned. Not only had he lost a prime international pawn when his sister took herself off the market, he lost any chance of getting her huge dowry back from France. Worse, the man who betrayed his trust was his best friend. Talk about salt in the wound! The Privy Council recommended execution, and Brandon is very lucky Henry didn’t agree to it. Widowed, Mary could be hitched anew.

If Henry had been already become as bonkers and ill-tempered as he would be in the 1530s, Brandon would have gotten a grave next to Tower Hill rather than forgiveness.

Fortunately for Suffolk, Henry was still in his right mind and the duke had an unexpected ally in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey poured oil on the troubled waters while the newlyweds kept out of the king’s sight at their country estate of Westhorpe Hall in Suffolk and wrote him apologetic letters. After a while, Henry’s temper cooled and he agreed with Wolsey that forgiveness would be best – but it would come at a price. The coupled were remarried on 13 May 1515 at Greenwich Palace with the king’s blessing, but he was going to recoup his costs out of their disobedient hides.

Not only was Mary not allowed a dowry, the couple had to repay Henry for her lost French dowry – more than £200,000, not including plate and jewels. (There was almost no way they could ever come up with this much.) They were also fined an additional £24,000 (more than £7,000,000 today), to be paid in yearly installments of £1000. Brandon also had to give up the lucrative wardship of his former betrothed, Elizabeth Grey, so his income was curtailed in the face of this huge expenditure. Rather than making Brandon more powerful, his marriage to the king’s sister could have beggared him.

mary-tudor queen of france 3

Happily for Brandon, Henry’s affection for him outweighed the king’s anger and avarice. Brandon would resume his place by Henry’s side hunting and jousting by the end of 1515, and the fine would eventually be reduced as the king’s temper cooled.

Did Mary ever regret her choice? There is no record of her marriage being unhappy, but after having gone through so much to secure Brandon she’d be unlikely to ever reveal it to have been a foolish choice on her part. Inasmuch as Brandon was considered one of the most handsome men alive, if the modern reader pictures him as Henry Cavil portrayed him, does Mary’s contentment seem more sure?

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon in The Tudors

That face and body could engender a lot of tolerance for shenanigans in a wife.

My only cause to wonder about their connubial bliss (or lack thereof) is the fact that Brandon, a charmer, had an extremely checkered marital past and actually had one of his former wives still alive (as well as fiancée) when he married the Dowager Queen. I am always suspicious of men who are “too” charming. Charm is often a sign of a narcissist/psychopath, and those make piss-poor husbands. 

But perhaps I do Brandon wrong. Conceivably, his wife was glad to the soles of her feet that she married him. She may have been deliriously happy with him until her early demise on 25 June 1533. Nor should the fact that Brandon married his son’s 14 year old betrothed, Catherine Willoughby, just three months after his wife’s death be held against him; he was eager to secure Catherine’s lands as much as anything. Catherine seems to have been happy with him. He might have been a good husband all along.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *